Stair climbing can be a tough workout — and a convenient, effective, affordable one.
If briskly climbing a flight of stairs (or a few) leaves you winded, it's no surprise. Stair climbing is a legitimate exercise — and an internationally recognized sport — that can improve your fitness.
Luckily, you don’t need to climb to the top of a skyscraper to get a good sweat on; stair workouts can be accessible at the gym, a park, or in your home.
Stair climbing is a type of vertical training, says PJ Glassey, CSCS, the founder of X Gym in Kirkland, Washington, and a nationally ranked tower runner. As the name implies, it involves ascending (walking up, or, if you’re more advanced, running up) flights of steps. It can be a type of everyday activity, exercise, or sport. Tower running, for example, is an organized, competitive sport where athletes run up the stairways of tall buildings, such as skyscrapers, according to a review of the sport published in the March 2020 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
These stairs can be located in a stairwell of a building, outside at a park or local stadium, or in a gym on a stair climbing machine, which simulates climbing stairs. This activity can also be done on a set of stairs at your house.
Stair climbing exercise can be a strenuous, says Alexandra Lempke, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of applied exercise science and the codirector of the Michigan Performance Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology in Ann Arbor. When you climb stairs, your heart rate and breathing will increase.
“Stair climbing for exercise targets the cardiovascular and respiratory systems,” Dr. Lempke says. It takes a lot of work to move your body mass vertically against gravity.
The physiological systems targeted during stair climbing also depend on how you’re doing it. For instance, says Lempke, if you’re walking or slowly jogging the stairs, this lower-intensity movement will be more of an aerobic endurance exercise.
Stair sprinting, on the other hand, is an anaerobic exercise that targets muscular power, she says. Anaerobic exercise is when muscles use glucose for energy rather than oxygen (which occurs in aerobic exercise), per the International Sports Sciences Association; a HIIT workout is an example of anaerobic exercise.
In addition, stair climbing also heavily recruits muscles of your posterior chain — the glutes and calves — as well as hip flexors and muscles in the ankle, which are required to raise your foot up onto each stair, explains Lempke. So the workout will help strengthen all those muscles.